Matt Forte is about to change titles. He’ll go from Chicago Bears running back to aging running back.
That feels like the transition made by every running back who becomes a late-career free agent. Forte hitting free agency has been inevitable for quite some time now, and he made it official through an Instagram post Friday morning.
"These decisions are never easy, especially given what Matt has meant to our team and community," Bears general manager Ryan Pace said in a statement confirming the Bears' decision to move on from Forte, via Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Matt is one of the all-time great Bears and did an excellent job for us on and off the field last season. He was a tremendous teammate."
So immediately we begin going about the imperfect science of disregarding the age reflected by Forte's birth certificate, instead trying to determine how old Forte is as a running back, and how much he has left to offer on the open market.
Too often, a running back’s football age is far ahead of his actual human age. But it’s possible Forte is an exception due to how he’s been utilized throughout his career, and the hits he’s been able to avoid.
Understanding what could set Forte apart requires first reminding ourselves about the age of 30 for running backs, and why that number is associated with the appearance of a career grim reaper.
Matt Forte entered the NFL in 2008. Most scrimmage yards since then:— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) February 12, 2016
Chris Johnson 11,654
To some extent Forte already held the title of aging running back, because football is especially cold and cruel at his position. He turned 30 years old in December, meaning he should dissolve any second.
Often the age conversation begins when a running back is 28 years old, as we note he may have only a couple of prime years left. Then, with few exceptions, it’s assumed that at the age of 30, the running back in question disintegrates into dust.
That assumption has been hardwired into the frontal lobe of our collective football minds by the realities of history. The running back graveyard is littered with once-dominant talents who faded fast in their early 30s once the physical punishment began to mount and injuries drained effectiveness. Names like Shaun Alexander come to mind quickly (1,880 rushing yards at age 28, then 716 at age 30), along with Eddie George (1,031 yards at 29 years old, then 432 yards at 30).
If those case studies in running back decay are a little too dated, then please look back to a few days ago. Marshawn Lynch chose to retire rather than put his clearly worn-down body through further beatings. His production plummeted from 1,306 rushing yards in 2014 to 417 yards in 2015, when he appeared in seven games.
His age? Lynch isn’t even officially 30 yet. He'll celebrate that birthday in April.
But pause now and ask yourself a question: What specifically do we talk about when we talk about running backs aging?
We talk about mileage, and their running back odometer. We talk about how many blows they’ve had to absorb throughout lengthy careers while running into brick walls otherwise known as linebackers and defensive tackles.
Most of all, we talk about how one climbing number (career carries) leads to the tumbling of two other significant numbers going forward (games played and rushing yards). Which is why you tend to shriek in horror for Forte after seeing this…
|Running back||Career carries|
Forte is one of four running backs with 2,000-plus career carries since he entered the league in 2008. It's natural to fear an imminent combustion then, and the comparison to Lynch on that list doesn't help matters.
But dig just a little deeper with those names and you’ll find there are holes in the age blanket we try to toss over running backs. The Vikings’ Adrian Peterson will turn 31 in March, and he led the league in rushing with 1,485 yards in 2015. And sure, the Colts’ Frank Gore doesn’t seem to have much more football left in his body now. However, during his age-31 year, he finished with a solid 1,106 rushing yards, which included two 140-plus-yard games.
Then there’s the Cardinals’ Chris Johnson, who seemed suddenly rejuvenated in his age-30 season. He was among the league’s rushing leaders with 814 yards over only 11 games before suffering a fractured tibia.
What sets Forte apart from his fellow elderly running backs on that list is how he balances the hits he endures as a runner with the hits he avoids as a pass-catcher. That’s what also fuels the belief Forte could continue to be a solid contributor for his future team, particularly if he transitions into a pass-catching role further down the road.
Forte has always excelled in that respect, as his nimble feet, acceleration after the catch and ability to cut quickly in space are all traits making him a dual threat. He leads all running backs in receptions and receiving yards since 2008.
|Running back||Receptions||Receiving yards|
Source: Pro Football Reference
His effectiveness as a pass-catcher out of the backfield leads to versatility many others don’t offer, and the chance for career longevity, too.
Forte’s 2015 season is a fine example of how he can turn less into more while aging slowly. It was a season when he missed three games due to an MCL injury. Resist your eye-widened terror reflex for a moment and note that it was only the second time in his eight-year career when he didn’t appear in at least 15 regular-season games.
Due to both that injury and the Bears’ desire to get younger in their backfield knowing Forte would soon depart, the veteran topped the 20-carry mark four times all season. Yet he still logged seven games with 100-plus yards from scrimmage because of his tackle-breaking skill set as a receiver (389 receiving yards).
Forte did that even while appearing in 13 games, and even while plowing ahead with a decreased workload. He was on the field for just 67.9 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus, which fell below 50 percent during four games.
As Robert Mays of The MMQB noted, when we look back at the overall picture of Forte’s receiving success, what he’s done is a little mind-blowing.
Since his rookie year, no RB has more yards from scrimmage than Matt Forte. He AVERAGED 61 catches a year. The guy was just great. (2/2)— Robert Mays (@robertmays) February 12, 2016
Asking Forte to keep that sort of premier-level production going into his mid-30s is unrealistic. Any team signing Forte wanting him to remain the running back he was in his prime years would be doing so not understanding how the concept of time works.
Forte isn’t immune to an age-induced decline. The difference, however, is that as a versatile pass-catching running back, it’s not difficult to imagine his fade being more gradual with quality years still ahead.
Forte just turned 30, so 2016 will be his age-30 season. Former New York Jets legend Curtis Martin recorded 484 career receptions, and had his best season at age 31 (1,942 yards from scrimmage). And entering that year he had piled up a whopping 3,346 touches.
A similar tale is told of LaDainian Tomlinson’s late-career revival. He was also a prolific pass-catcher with 624 receptions, but many rightfully assumed he was done playing at a high level after 884 yards from scrimmage with the San Diego Chargers in 2009. Then during his first year with the Jets, he churned out 1,282 yards.
Both Martin and Tomlinson finally sputtered at age 32. The same fate might be waiting for Forte, which means that as a running back who does so much more than just ram through large bodies, he could easily have two or three more productive seasons left.
That’s more than most running backs of his vintage, and plenty to make him a temporary but still high-level backfield solution for any team in need.